My siblings attended public school. Mom only enrolled me in Saint Clare’s Catholic school.
When we lived in farm houses I sneaked on the public-school bus with public school kids at the rural bus stop, hopped off at the combined public grade and high school drop off and walked the half mile to Saint Clare’s. During my lunch hour, I hastened to the public high school cafeteria which served the public grade school students lunch but a half hour before my lunch time. There with the high school students I passed myself off as a tardy grade school student and got a great lunch meal for 25 cents.
Once we lived in Tropicana Village I rode the city bus, the only kid who left earl in the morning and got home late, too late to join neighborhood after school activities. It didn’t matter. The kids knew one another from school. I was an outsider, the unknown kid in the neighborhood.
My school holidays were different. Public schools got out the week before Christmas and Easter and mine the week after leaving me with no one to play with. At parochial school, we reverently observed religious holy days such as Good Friday while public school kids didn’t even know it was a religious day. Attending parochial school resulted in my being a loner.
Baptism according to Catholic tenets leaves an indelible mark on one’s soul. I can’t remember my baptism but the nuns inculcate catechism left their indelible mark. In 2nd grade I receive First Communion, a major Catholic event. Requirements were memorizing the Our Father and Hail Mary prayers and the 10 Commandments. We also learned God was 3 in 1, God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. My wonderful 2nd grade teacher, Sister Mary Joseph, was kind and could explain complicated religious concepts in 2nd grade level eloquence.
With trenchant logic, she explained the Holy Trinity is already in us, God the Father in our mind, God the Son, Jesus in our heart and God the Holy Ghost in our soul and when we went to Communion they became one with us.
She told us we had a guardian angel, always next to us we could talk to in our prayers so we were never alone and who protected us from Satan who was lurking about. She described the Blessed Virgin Mary as a super Mom who we could always call on in a pinch, a call I frequently made during life.
She also versed us in the 10 commandments so they weren’t just rote memorizations which I still can recite:
- I am the Lord your God. You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.
- You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
- Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day.
- Honor your father and your mother.
- You shall not kill.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet your neighbor's wife.
- You shall not covet your neighbor's goods.
The 1st was easy enough; Mom and I attended Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation but I worried about Dad and those not Catholic. She explained they were just confused and God forgave and accepted them if they were good. When I asked, “God’s a man?” She winked and replied.
“No, Him, means God is everything, male, female, everything”
The 2nd was another easy one except again I worried about Dad. He cursed in Chinese if he had bad luck or stubbed his toe. His curses, however, were explained as against a Chinese God not covered in Commandment 1.
The 3rd was easy; Mom and I already covered it by obeying Commandment 1. I feared, however, for the rest of the family and others I knew. I didn’t want to be in heaven with Mom the only one known. The kind sister said not to worry.
“They don’t sin because they don’t know better.”
This caused a flash of heresy.
“Sister is it better not to know too much?”
“No, my dear girl, if you know God, you are closer to God.”
Not wanting to pursue this further I accepted Dad and my siblings would be in heaven with me but maybe a little distant from the center of action yet still close enough for me to visit with. I also figured the brother 1 year younger than me could use a little purgatory time.
Number 4 of course was the big one. I worked hard on it and did what Mom asked. Dad was an easy pass. He never asked me to do anything.
5 was a no brainer and war she said was only against bad people God wanted killed.
6 and 9 were confusing as I did not know the details referred to. When questioned a bit she explained adultery as kissing or hugging when not married and 9 was when a man wanted another man’s wife, kind of like stealing.
7, 8 and 10 were simple don’ts, don’t lie, steal or want to steal. While 10 crossed my mind a few times, especially at Christmas and birthday parties where a girl got a present I wanted, I never stole. I never lied except when Mom told me to tell salesmen she was not home when she was. This was explained as not really lying because Mom was not home to that person.
The 10 Commandments were a little more complicated than when first read and covered some things not understood but I didn’t fret over details and accepted Sister Mary Joseph’s explanations, memorized them and could repeat them by number out of sequence when asked.
When saying the Hail Mary prayer, I didn’t understand “Immaculate Conception” or even “Virgin” in second grade but she Explained is simply meant Mary was pure without sin and I put them down as additional titles like, Blessed.
To this day, I mentally talk to Sister Mary Joseph. She explains complicated moral dilemmas and reconciles what I’ve done and need to do to get me back into God’s grace.
With one more memorization, I was ready for my First Confession. I memorized what I was to say. It was simple enough as tested on the good sister who was actually my first confessor.
In response to the priest’s introduction,
“Bless you child, is this your first confession?”
“Yes, father this is my first confession.”
“What are your sins?”
“I have disobeyed my mother and did not do the dishes when first asked. I also wish I had a Schwinn bicycle like other girls.”
To the priest’s response I was to do the required penance and be free of sin. It worked. When I left the confessional with 3 Hail Mary’s to do, a great feeling of relief swept me as I crossed myself, quickly recited my penance re- crossed myself and was sparkling clean before God.
Mom and I made my First Communion outfit. When the big day arrived, even Dad said I looked beautiful in white, a little bride, he called me. He gave me $5 and I doubled down on good deeds and gave each brother $1. He also gave me a rabbit’s foot with a brass metal case holding the stump with a little chain. He said it was for good luck in my life, luck being his deity.
“Eleanor, keep this for good luck, just in case. It’s good to have a little backup in life.”
My first communion was the only time Dad went to church until I married. I was so proud he was there with Mom. I’ve carried the rabbit’s foot with me in life, my talisman of good luck.
That Sunday after the altar boy rang the bells announcing the transubstantiation as God entered the Eucharist host; the boys and girls trooped in separate groups to the altar, boys 1st. Having the boys go first was not saying the girls were 2nd. The boys simply dressed in their corduroy pants and white shirts were not the center of attention. We girls in our first communion outfits were the big act.
I rose from kneeling with back straight from the pew kneeler with the other girls when the nun instructed, kept my hands together in prayer as I followed the girls, walked to the altar, knelt, before its rail and stuck out my tongue as the priest approached. He held the host with his index finger and thumb as required, crossed the host before my face and gently laid it on my outstretched tongue.
I crossed myself, rose and walked back to my pew with hands held in prayer filled with the Holy Trinity. I was careful not to let the host touch my teeth and let it dissolve on my tongue as told by the good sister. She had explained God didn’t like to get chewed up before entering one’s soul. Kneeling in the pew a wonderful feeling of joy filled me, a shroud of light, knowing God the Father, Jesus His only begotten Son and the Holy Ghost were united with my soul. A mystical emotional experience those not Catholic miss and cannot comprehend.
I loved going to Holy Communion and did so every Sunday and on Holy Day of Obligation and racked up a slew of plenary indulgences, Catholic Church get out of purgatory cards, much needed later in life.
I never brought classmates home due to distance and embarrassment. At home I escaped family din, retreated to my bedroom and enjoyed my loner status. The bedroom was my sanctuary where I studied and fantasized a world of my own, a world where I was queen.
By the 5th grade all my class papers had J M J centered on the top for Jesus, Mary and Joseph, each page dedicated to the Holy Family. In my little purse I carried a Saint Teresa's holy picture as my role model. She died a virgin rather than be raped. I also wore a Saint Christopher's medal which ensured I could make a last confession to save my soul before I died, something drilled into us as imminently possible from atomic attack and reinforced with school air raid drills.
With Moffett Naval Air Base nearby we were another X on Russian maps. When the air raid siren wailed the fifty plus students in each class were marched in strict silence under the direction of the nuns into the corridor. There we formed long columns in the crowded corridor. As the air raid siren continued to wail we all crouched on our knees, put our forehead on the floor, covered our head with our arms and waited to be blown to smithereens.
With foreheads pressed to the floor, the stern eyes of the nuns watched to ensure no head rose, an infraction resulting in an immediate rap on the head with a nun’s wooden clicker which also served as a death ray gun for more distant infractions in the classroom.
A few boys, however still, sneaked a glance if a girl's skirt was askew revealing a thigh while the nuns paced to and fro looking for this mortal sin infraction, their floor length habits sweeping the floor. When kneeling, I flipped a hand back to tuck my skirt snug to cover my thighs. I didn’t want to be the subject of boys snickering comments afterwards.
Once the fire marshal was satisfied with our response the siren would wail a wobble all clear. Then we arose and nosily marched back to our desks, impressed with our good fortune of again not being blown up by an atomic bomb.
Back in class the nuns used the exercise as a reminder of our potential sudden death and the danger to our souls if tainted by mortal sin. It was impressed on us this life was temporary but life after death was eternal. If we tripped up in this life and were caught dead with even a single mortal sin the punishment was eternal hell. The good news was a confession before a priest could immediately clear the slate.
Hell and its opposite, heaven were common fanaticism classroom themes. For religious pictorial teaching reinforcement the nuns kept a large roll of colored pictures on a wood frame. Standing it up in front of the class the desired picture could be flipped in front for the class to see.
The vivid pictorial roll consisted of winged angels looking blissfully down from clouds, saints and martyrs, some horribly tortured, the stages of Jesus's life including crucifixion, the Blessed Virgin Mary and the fate of sinners caught with a mortal sin on their soul at death.
Hell's sinners were pictured roasting over burning sulfur, gnawed on but never eaten by wild beasts, and my favorite, cooking in giant boiling pots, each suffering their punishment for eternity. I didn't question the nun's Catholic orthodoxy but did think eternity in hell for eating meat on Friday too severe a punishment. I figured it must be punishment for being stupid. How could anyone forget and eat meat on Friday? Our family loved seafood.
In addition to communion I loved to sign and loved Gloria in excelsis Deo, (Latin for "Glory to God in the highest") and Kyrie Eleison, (Greek for "Lord have mercy"). Even the Gregorian chant was beautiful to my ears. With an atypical contralto singing voice the nuns put me in the school choir as a semi star.
In grade school with the sisters urging I decided to be a nun. Dad laughed saying I would become a penguin but Mom encouraged me and prayed it would happen.
While devout and boy shy, I still experienced boy crushes. In 8th grade I was a secret admirer. He had a Hispanic last name, Castro but was blond and blue eyed. I attended his basketball games and cherished his dribbling from the bleachers.
On 8th grade graduation we were segregated into the "select" and those not. The "select" were further segregated by gender to avoid mortal sin temptations. Notre Dame was the exclusive all girl Catholic high school in downtown San Jose for the "select" aka "chosen" girls while Belermine was for the boys. "Selection" was based on grades, exam results and probably parental influence.
I and the other 25 girls in the 8th class took the Notre Dame High School entrance exam while the boys took Bellermine's.
I was one of 3 girls in my class accepted. While I had no parental influence my isolation in grade school ensured my good grades and a high-test score as I retreated to my room to sturdy. I went to Notre Dame because Mom was ecstatic, because I was proud I was one of only 3 "selected" but also because I was shy of attending public high school where I would be a stranger.
With Notre Dame near Mom's work we rode the bus together. I earned my tuition and bus fare babysitting and working summers and made my school uniform which was simple enough, a checkered long skirt with a white blouse. The home spun marked me as one who couldn’t afford a downtown Hart's Department Store school uniform. I didn’t care. Instead I was proud I could sew and make it and looked down at the other girls as I knew few could make theirs if they had to.
Between thirteen and sixteen I experienced puberty and left hop scotch and jump rope behind. I sprouted to my full 5’ 7” height but ended up too dark, teeth too big, too skinny and with big lips. My siblings prior to puberty called me frog or rubber lips due to my full lips then started calling me bean pole and duck because I was skinny with a long neck. Dad corrected them saying I was his swan but this confirmed my neck was too long. I tried to keep my lips pursed and my head down between shoulders.
At grade school at first I was simply Lin or slant eyes. I made the mistake after hearing slant eyes once too often and stuck out my long extendable tongue in response. Thereafter I was Cobra, the snake. I tried to ignore this name tag, kept my tongue in but it stuck and the hated nickname Cobra followed me into high school.
While initially called “slant eyes”, in grade school I never experienced racial prejudice in school or my neighborhood, at least that I could recognize. All kids got physical trait nick names or were called by some made up name. The “slant eyes” was similar to a “big ears” name tag. The tag “Cobra” bothered me more.
There were few blacks in the area and none in school but the local racial mix blended otherwise from white to a dark brown at the edge of black. There were many Portuguese, Mexicans even a few Italians darker than me. In Catholic school it was explained we were all part of God’s Mystical Body, each a piece of a larger whole. I considered being Asian as being a superior part of the Mystical Body, of being in the brain.
Initially my sex education consisted of misinformed school girl gossip, seeing dogs copulate and farm yard roosters tear out the back feathers of hens and assumed people were stuck together by the male's penis awhile after sex like dogs were. Mom frequently admonished me not to let boys "touch me" or I would get pregnant. Neither she nor the nuns ever talked about touching details or my changing body. I purchased my first bra as well as Kotex without direction from Mom.
This was not unusual back then; one didn't talk about "those things".
I was prepared for menstruation from girls whispering about it at school and it occurring for me after most. The girls also explained what boy part had to touch my part to get pregnant. Still for a year I thought it only took one "touch" and bam you were pregnant. In my freshman year things got clearer by secretly reading books with sketchy diagrams at the downtown library and by some girls who were "experts".
Despite being thin my breasts developed full or at least fuller than expected for the rest of me. As they grew they tingled and ached. Lying in bed at night, cupping them in my hands as I fell asleep, I wondered when they would stop growing. I knew they were visible as my family looked away from them when talking to me.
When I walked past boys, they stared at them with some making comments. The first time a boy whistled I didn’t understand why. Once I learned I was the object of their whistle I assumed it was my long neck. After a few cat calls I realized my breasts were the object of attention. Turning brown red and quickly walking away encouraged them. It was my first sense of sexual power but I did not think of it as such. Instead I felt a distancing from my family and suspected their being large, like my long neck was another deformity.
I carried my school Pee Che folder in front to hide them and avoid whistles.
Author Notes: Story sets the religious school background for woman who eventually commits adultery.